I do not have an MFA, and I’ve barely taken any writing classes. Oh, there were a few in high school and undergrad — my book is actually dedicated to my high school creative writing teacher — but when I think about my development as a writer, those aren’t the experiences I think about.
No. Instead, I think about what might be the writers’ equivalent to the school of hard knocks:
I came up through the fanfic ranks. Occasionally glorious, occasionally bloody.
It began on AOL. It continued on FFN (fanfiction.net). It reached its peak on LiveJournal. It continues still, though surreptitiously and infrequently, on AO3 (Archive Of Our Own).
Here’s the thing about learning to write, especially learning to write novels: unless you’re in a class where your peers are under a mandate to read your stuff and comment on it, it is incredibly difficult to get people to look at unfinished, unpublished original works.
Fanfic, though? Fanfic, people will read. Strangers and friends alike who could never find the time to read a 7-page short story will happily devour a 7,000 word one-shot about the giant squid in the Hogwarts lake, or 17,000 words hypothesizing the fate of House Lannister after Daenerys Targaryen takes the Iron Throne, or 70,000 words about Kirk and Spock’s torrid love affair. They’ll read it, and they’ll give you feedback.
That feedback isn’t always nice. Some people are jerks. When I was 13 and just starting out, a Star Wars story I put up got absolutely shredded, so viciously that I almost gave up writing entirely — until my mother pointed out how dumb it was to let one random asshole’s opinion devastate me. FFN, I found, was particularly bad in this regard, because it had such a high degree of anonymity. I started to learn what criticism was valid, what was just a difference in opinion, and what was just trolling. On LJ, people tended to be kinder. They’d still give constructive criticism, if asked for it, but because fic on LJ happened more inside close-knit communities (at least in my experience — mileage may have varied across fandoms), it forged more real relationships, not just hit-and-run comments.
And that’s where I started to get the sort of thing I think other people find in MFA programs. Beta readers and what I guess I’d now call critique partners, though we weren’t using that terminology at the time. People who would say, “I love the language you use in this paragraph”, but might also say, “I’m not sure I understand Bellatrix’s motivation here”. I’m still close friends with a good number of those people. Some of us have gone on to write professionally; many haven’t; we all still support and celebrate each other. My life would be so much poorer if I didn’t have the friends I made because of the Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Kushiel’s Legacy fandoms and their respective LJ communities.
Participating in fanfic communities taught me so much. I learned about characterization — I know some people diss fanfic as unoriginal, but setting aside the fact that writers throughout history have borrowed characters to give them a new spin and done so in professional circumstances, the process also taught me about consistency. I had to match canon — or deviate knowingly and with an explanation for doing so — and eventually, once I gained something resembling a following, I had to stay consistent with myself, because people had gotten to know “my” Bella or “my” Rowena or “my” Lyanna, and they read my fics because that was who they wanted to see.
I also tended to pick underdeveloped characters rather than the canon protagonists, which gave me a lot of room to explore, and I wrote a fair few OCs. When I was a kid, yeah, those were Mary Sues, and I’m not ashamed. I have very strong feelings about the psychological and emotional value of ridiculous self-inserts. But as I progressed, the OCs became less like that and more just a way of playing inside a world but without any constricts on characterization. I learned how to build my own believable humans.
I also learned about pacing, and about how fucking hard it is to finish a book-length project. I had, oh, so very many deserted multi-chapter fics.
I learned how to write to spec and to deadline, through prompts and contests.
I learned how to write relationships between characters, whether or not those relationships existed in canon.
I learned how to write about sex without it being either clinical or ridiculous. When my editor said that the sex scene in From Unseen Fire was awesome, I had to laugh, because if it is? That’s 100% down to my training as a fanfic author.
Yes, I wrote smut, y’all.
A lot of it.
Throughout all of that, I gained a lot of confidence. I started winning of contests in those communities. Informal things, of course — if there were any prize at all, it came in the form of a shiny graphic to put on my LJ info page, or points for my house (Slytherin, Courcel, and Targaryen, respectively). But that still bolstered my confidence so much. Often, those contests were judged by the community, voted on — and they were always submitted anonymously. It wasn’t my reputation or my friendships that got me the recognition. It was talent.
And that felt… really, really good.
I may not have taken many formal classes or gotten an MFA, but I started writing fanfic at the age of 12 and I haven’t stopped in the past twenty years. I write less fanfic than I used to, now that I have Real Things to work on, and I publish even less than I write, but it’s still a part of me, and I can say without any hesitation that I would not be the writer I am if it weren’t for those twenty years in the fanfic trenches. And I’m proud of that.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just had an idea for a great line to add to my Star Trek: Deep Space 9 WIP.
Cass’s debut novel, FROM UNSEEN FIRE, is now available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook! If you’re interested in more about the world of Aven, check out her Patreon. If you want her secret AO3 username, get her drunk at a convention sometime.